Pink Periscope?

Last week, the Navy announced it would reverse course and begin allowing women to serve on submarines.  Like the plan to repeal the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law that prevents openly homosexual people from serving, this new policy is the worst sort of experimentation on a military that is already over-stressed by eight years of war.

A Navy blogger posted two important questions in the wake of the announcement: “Is there a shortage of prospective submariners that prompted this? Or is this pure social engineering?”

There’s no doubt this is “pure social engineering” inspired by President Obama’s Pentagon appointees and aided by top admirals who are blinded by political correctness.  The Navy brass should base fleet manning decisions on combat effectiveness criteria and Congress has 30 days to stop this silliness before the service begins implementing this radical policy.

Navy leaders crowed about the decision.  Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said the reversal of the long-standing ban gives women “…every opportunity to serve at sea.”   Admiral Mike Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it’s about “diversity of our force” and Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of Naval Operations, said “I am familiar with the issues as well as the value of diverse crews.”

Women comprise 15 percent of the 330,500-strong active Navy.  They were first allowed on support ships in 1978, and on combat ships, in 1994.  Today, the Navy prohibits women from serving in 25,000 submarine positions not because they lack the intellectual and technical skills but for other reasons.  

First, it’s expensive to reconfigure submarines to provide women privacy.  The Navy estimates it would cost $300,000 per bed to gender integrate submarines because of the required design changes.  But reconfiguring only works on the largest, ballistic missile –Trident – submarines which are 560 feet long and 42 feet wide.  By comparison creating a female rack on an aircraft carrier cost $4,000.    It may be impossible on smaller nuclear attack subs.

Submarines are crammed full of electronics, machines and weapons.  Crew space is almost an afterthought which explains the costs associated with reconfiguring a submarine to provide private berthing for women.  Any increase in berthing area cuts into the ship’s war-fighting capability such as the number of weapons it carries.  Alternatively, the Navy could avoid this readiness-busting issue with single sex submarines, but that might be an impossible manning challenge.

Second, submariners know the first casualty of submarine duty is personal privacy.  A typical submarine crew of 141 shares the living space equivalent to that of a medium-sized home with few bathrooms and showers.

Living and sleeping quarters are called “berthing areas” that provide no more than 15 square feet per man.  The “racks”  are stacked three or four high and sailors change clothes next to their rack and “hotbunking” (three sailors sharing two racks) is common because one-third of the crew are asleep at a time.  

Only the captain and the executive officer have private space, called staterooms, in which to work and sleep. The junior officers share two or four man spaces which could be given to women forcing the male officers to hotbunk like the enlisted sailors.  But any special accommodation for female sailors would create animosity among the men who are typically in 30 man bunkrooms while their female peers get “luxury” quarters.  

Richard Douglas, a former machinist mate on an attack submarine, said the most sensible solution is “…to put men and women together in berthing, messing and bathing facilities, with the hope that maturity and professionalism will keep natural attraction and hormones in check.”  But a retired Navy commander with submarine service said unisex living would be “disastrous” for the crew and especially the skipper.

Third, the “disaster” erupts when mixing the sexes in a closed submarine environment for long periods.  An officer who served on a fast attack submarine said women on board “would create a sexual harassment attorney’s career.”  He points out the “passageways are too thin for two male members to keep from brushing each other’s body.”   

For this social engineering project to work the submarine skipper will have to maintain rigid discipline but as one officer said, “sex will happen.” Patty Marr, a former Navy officer and graduate of the Naval Academy, wrote “Shipboard romances happen, affect good order and discipline, ruin marriages under stress from military separations and are punished in the Navy.”   
Ultimately, sexual tensions will undermine crew cohesion – the trust and confidence in one another – and morale will suffer.  Ms. Marr argues the “Military’s mission is to effectively fight wars, not be an equal opportunity employer pandering to every special interest group.”  She asks tongue-in-cheek, “Should we [also] make submarines handicapped accessible?”
Fourth, the average woman lacks the required strength for submarine duty.  Mr. Douglas wrote “…gender integration will increase the already-heavy physical burden for the shrinking number of junior enlisted men.”  

Modern submarines require significant physical labor, Douglas explained.  The boats are stuffed with heavy equipment, supplies and machinery that require the muscle power of all hands – ballast control, depth control, torpedo and missile operations, firefighting, provisioning, mooring and others.   

Ms. Marr, who once supervised 60 personnel including women aboard a Navy ship, wrote “Average women do not have the upper body strength of the average man.”  She said, “I passed all my tests, but I could not lower a submersible pump into a flooded space.  Who would you prefer in wartime?”

Fifth, pregnancy and sea service are incompatible but it happens more often than the Navy admits.  A former Navy medical officer aboard a ship with 90 women said 25 women were evacuated for pregnancy during a six month cruise and he warned that common first trimester pregnancy issues like spontaneous miscarriages are potentially deadly.

At-sea pregnancy for a submariner would result in the woman’s quick and likely dangerous, mission-jeopardizing mid-ocean evacuation.  Her duties would then be passed to other overstretched crewmembers because the Navy does not typically replenish at-sea crews.

There is also a health risk for the woman’s unborn child.  Submarine air is constantly recycled but carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels in that air can cause birth defects in the unborn, even in the early weeks of gestation before a woman knows she is pregnant.  

Finally, a Navy spokesman said “The integration of women into the submarine force will increase the talent pool.”  A submariner questioned that view on the blog “The Stupid Shall Be Punished.”  “Of females qualified to serve on submarines, do they want to do so in the same percentage as men?  If they don’t, will they be ‘Volun-told’ to choose submarines,” asked the submariner.

The Navy hasn’t indicated whether it expects to find sufficient qualified female volunteers but the decision could hurt retention and recruitment among men.  

The submariners’ wives – the undersea service is generally a married community – have a vote and Pentagon brass need to listen.  Those wives know about the lack of privacy aboard a submarine and the implication this decision has for marriage-busting relationships.  Imagine a wife’s reaction should her husband announce that he’s hotbunking or sharing sleeping space with a female sailor on an upcoming cruise.

The Navy’s decision to assign women to submarines is not about enhancing readiness but social engineering.  Congress must reverse this decision that defies all logic and endangers the readiness of our highly complex and critical undersea service.